Sunday, December 8, 2019

"Double-Consciousness": Terms to Know if Teaching While White

"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. "   -W.E.B. DuBois

I was reading an article in The New York Times today about a trend in the entertainment world called BlackOut Performances, in which stage productions or film screenings are reserved for an all-black audience. The article spoke about how, for performers and audience members, this experience offered a space where it was safe to react without the added layer of awareness of white observers of one's reaction. The article referenced the term "double-consciousness," coined by W.E.B. Dubois in his work THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK (quoted above).

As a white teacher with students of color, this quote, this concept, resonated. I have noticed often that my  students who are African-American, or have some African-American background, frequently seem hyper-conscious of whether other kids are looking at them, talking about them, etc. They often ask to work in the hallway or in another private space, away from the eyes of the rest of the class. They often seem to have a heightened level of self-consciousness, which turns to defensive anger with a seeming rapidity that I and my white colleagues sometimes find mystifying and frustrating.

My white colleagues and I forget, because we can. We forget the exhausting waters these students swim in every moment of the school day, waters polluted by micro-agressions and steeped in hundreds of years of history that none of us can escape. The students swim with heightened awareness, with double-consciousness. When they seem to suddenly snap, it's only under a constant tension pulled taut that I fail to see, a cumulative effect that finally strains and  breaks. When they ask to work in the hallway, or they pull up the hood of their sweatshirt or pull down the brim of their baseball cap, I have to remember, they just need a break. They need a chance to let their guard down just a little bit, to breathe for a moment, to stop watching themselves with double-eyes.

If you, like me, are "teaching while white," take some time to notice this behavior in action. Try reframing it. See what happens.

DuBois' words were written over 100 years ago.

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